I only celebrate the birth of artists who, through the utterly sublime value of their work, make me think of  them as being still alive at the other end of the reader-writer wire, continuing infinitely to transmit a message, an idea, an aesthetic truth beyond a tomb’s earthly limit. Really. And dear boy Oscar Wilde’s just the persona to illustrate my idea of immortal writer.

His “Picture of Dorian Gray”, a flabbergasting compilation of epigrams brilliantly woven with the actual plot, was the object of my first genuine literary infatuation after finishing Homer’s heavy Iliad and has continued inciting my imagination ever since. Needless to confess I can’t eschew reading it least once a year and am actually unable to expel it from my frequent-comparison-terms list (together with David’s Michelangelo and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando).  Its amaranthine aspects keep exerting a seemingly imperishable fascination which I always invariably bite. The wit, the beauty, the whole philosophy of dandyism and vanity in a decadent age: my pronounced affinity for them all has rendered my senses, well, sensible to Oscar’s only novel although I’m perfectly aware plenty other books surpass it in their overall value. Alas (or perhaps not), I am a voluntary victim of Dorian Gray’s witchery.

But enough about the creation: I say happy birthday to the marvelous wordsmith Wilde perfectly embodied and especially to the shrewd observer, the keen intellectual, the lobster-walker, the astute social animal and incorrigible fop coexisting within his fleshly borders. So incredible a man as he deserves the most bona fide greeting on these anniversary days despite being, physically, a mere pile of bones devoid of the possibility of hearing them. However, I wouldn’t refrain from wishing the man a formally expressed “happy birthday” before his tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery (an occasion I’ve simply missed the last time I’ve been to Paris). There’s something very captivating in paying your compliments to a beloved author before their grave and I’m planning on capturing a drop of the respective feeling with the post you’re currently reading.

To commemorate Wilde I’m dedicating today to watching all the ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ movies ever made and contriving a top of related subjects I could write about here. Nothing grand or equally off-the-wall to his deeds, unfortunately, but rather a good, valid excuse to do what I’ve been yearning to for a while now. What can I say: nice justification, a dead man’s 158th birthday… 🙂

Ah, and furthermore exploiting the occasion, I’d like heading what’s (if any) your relationship with the defunct yet still lively Oscar; associations, opinions, life stories, practically all you’re kind enough to share.

Having recently been to Austria (again) and inevitably but  nevertheless unpremeditatedly  stumbled upon an earthly remnant of the famed Sissi, Franz Joseph’s bohemian Empress, in the form of a palace called Kaiservilla, my fascination with her legend instantly rekindled. Thus I ended up buying yet another biography depicting the bizarre destiny of the much idolized monarch whose blazing icon still lingers over the lore-inspired part of our collective memory quite as if time would not attempt diminishing such rarefied a charm – although perhaps time in itself shares not half the merits for its transcendence in the detriment of intensive propaganda which doubtlessly enhances the Austrian economy with its touristic value. So, out of a melange of eagerness and spontaneous, exceptional magnanimity, I made my pecuniary contribution by purchasing Sophie Zavadill’s “Elisabeth, Empress of Austria” and Jean des Cars’ “Sissi, Empress of Austria” (do note I’m aware of the phenomenal difference between these two exceedingly dissimilar titles), managing to devour them in a bit under 2 days.

Here’s one delicious fragment to justify my enthusiasm and concomitantly provide an insight in Sissi’s complex personality:

Sissi, portrait by Hungarian artist Gyula Benczúr

During a carnival she and Ida Ferenczy attended a masked ball in secret. It was the Redoute, which is still held annually in the grand ballroom of the Hofburg. The emperor knew nothing of his wife’s escapade. She also deceived her servants by having herself undressed as usual, going to bed, and pretending to sleep – just as in a novel.  When her servants had withdrawn, Ida Ferenczy slipped into her room with the fancy-dress costume, a magnificent yellow domino made of heavy brocade. Ida also brought the empress a red blonde wig and mask with long black tassels to completely cover her face. Ida wore a red domino and was also masked- as is still the custom at the Redoute.

‘The two slipped into the hall and at first only watched the goings-on from the the balcony. Elisabeth was fascinated. She had been to every sort of functioning by then but never to a masked ball. When she became tired of looking, the empress selected from the crownd a young man who was obviously without an escort. Ida brought him, a government employee in his late twenties, to the masked empress, who spent the rest of the evening in the company of this Fritz Pacher. She questioned him about politics, asked whether he was satisfied with the government, inquired what he thought of the empress and finally spoke about her favorite poet, Heinrich Heine. She flirted with the young man but could not be moved to lift her mask by a centimeter. The ball of the yellow domino was followed by a series of letters between the blonde “Gabrielle” and Pacher. These letters have survived and confirm the fairy-tale story.

More than ten years later, Elisabeth wrote a poem called “Long, long ago: the song of the yellow domino”.’

(“Elisabeth, Empress of Austria” by Sophie Zavadill)

A Gallery of Beauties

June 17, 2013

Everybody at a certain point harbors the desire or curiosity or simple, sheer interest to gather a collection of various things in diverse quantities, some parameters more eccentric than others. Empress Elisabeth of Austria, commonly nicknamed “Sissi“, a character to whom Madame has dedicated a plethora of posts, had her own phenomenal assortment which put together a considerable number of photos immortalizing the most beauteous women of the age. But I already wrote about it here. Yet what I didn’t know at the time when that account of her oddities was given and subsequently learned to be a crucial factor in explaining her peculiar idea of a collection refers to the strikingly similar propensity for putting together images of beautiful ladies which dominated the life of  Sissi’s uncle, King Ludwig I o Bavaria. No longer content with getting most of the pulchritudinous grand dames of the time in his bed for fleeting moments of passion, the monarch who is (in)famous for abdicating the throne following a tempestuous scandal involving his mistress, Lola Montez, determined to forever own the marvelous physical charm of these resplendent females. And thus took shape the Gallery of Beauties, the original inspiration for Empress Elisabeth’s identically themed albums.

beauties

This chamber, wholly dedicated to the celebration of corporal attractiveness, exhibits a selection of 36 portraits ordered by Ludwig between 1827 and 1850. They were all commissioned to have the same size so as to perfectly fit in the allocated space and all feature the enchanting profiles of mid 19th century women coming from sundry social backgrounds like the German aristocracy or the European middle-class. This way, characters who otherwise never spoke in real life were forced by circumstance to keep each other company while hanging on the walls of the King’s gallery of visual splendor inside Nymphenburg Palace. So Ludwig’s sister, Sophie (between brackets: the mother of Emperor Franz of Austria, Sissi’s husband), rested alongside such notorious figures as English aristocrat Jane Digby, actress Charlotte von Hagn (a former concubine to Franz Liszt) and, inevitably, Lola Montez, quite an outrageous arrangement, given the epoch. Sort of like compelling Whistler’s Mother to face Courbet’s “Origin of the World” non-stop.

Don’t you just fancy having a place resembling this?

One could never guess what genuinely amusing event devoid of any anticipation turned Wagner’s  Tannhäuser  première in a complete fiasco. It is the prerogative of the haughty19th century Parisian aristocracy to surprise both poor Richard, the contemporary and modern auditory with a reaction that changed the faith of an opera now considered one of Wagner’s best.

Facts are comically of an elementary character.

On this very day, 13 March 1861, the Salle Le Peletier was meant to host the first representation of Tannhäuser in France after exhausting months spent with a consuming number of over 160 thorough  rehearsals  which Wagner never failed to attend given that he was exceedingly keen to impress the public. A public composed from such characters as Emperor Napoleon III and Pauline von Metternich one cannot simply afford to disappoint.

And with the dozens of preparations undertaken, it shouldn’t have been the case . In fact, everything was arranged  for Wagner to repute a success.

But what actually happened?

Here’s the account almighty Wikipedia gives:

Wagner had originally hoped the Parisian première would take place at the Théâtre Lyrique. However, the première was at the Paris Opéra, so the composer had to insert a ballet into the score, according to the traditions of the house. Wagner agreed to this condition since he believed that a success at the Opéra represented his most significant opportunity to re-establish himself following his exile from Germany. Yet rather than put the ballet in its usual place in Act II, he chose to place it in Act I, where it could at least make some dramatic sense by representing the sensual world of Venus’s realm.

This midget alteration of the custom gave way to a veritable disaster.

There was a serious planned assault on the opera’s reception by members of the wealthy and aristocratic Jockey Club. Their habit was to arrive at the Opéra only in time for the Act II ballet, after previously dining, and, as often as not, to leave when the ballet was over. They objected to the ballet coming in Act I, since this meant they would have to be present from the beginning of the opera. Furthermore, they disliked Princess von Metternich, who had arranged the performance, and her native country of Austria.’ [any recall of the French revolution, anybody? any analogy to the way they treated Marie Antoinette? or perhaps your mind  goes back to the Vienna Congress in 1815?]

Club members led barracking from the audience with whistles and cat-calls. At the third performance on 24 March, this uproar caused several interruptions of up to fifteen minutes at a time. As a consequence, Wagner withdrew the opera after the third performance.This marked the end to Wagner’s hopes of establishing himself in Paris, at that time the center of the operatic world.

In a nutshell, this is the story of how a genius was ruined by frivolous manners.

Why art is quite useless

February 23, 2013

Oscar Wilde closed the 1891 preface to  the “Picture of Dorian Grey” with a most enigmatic epigram: “All art is quite useless.” All the Greek symbols of aesthetic majesty, all the Renaissance masterpieces that come to our days, the scraps of melodic perfection in Mozart, the lines of utter harmony in Shakespeare, his own fascinating aphorisms inclusively: they hold no function.

Upon learning this, it’s merely normal to exert your curiosity and, as Bernulf Clegg did back then, demand some competent explanations.

Dear Wilde never fudged responding to such enquiries with the sort of handwritten letters like the below shown.

wilde

Transcript:

16, TITE STREET,
CHELSEA. S.W.

My dear Sir

Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realize the complete artistic impression.

A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.

Truly yours,

Oscar Wilde

Has it clarified the concept? Do you adhere to his belief?

I myself find the word “useless” still too powerful to limit genuine art…

From those titivated descendants of the sanguinary mob that had relentlessly witnessed the guillotine at work with victorious sneers and shouts of “death to the  ancien regime!” what is to expect? After such macabre an episode as the one unleashed in the years after the 1789 revolution could we not suspect a massive change of mentality which would eventually give sense to why people enjoyed promenades to the Paris morgue?

Well… partly.

paris

I couldn’t say for sure, giving the other explanations more entitled historians have for this grim pastime, but I bet there’s a bit of the Terror exerting its effect in the melange. Why else would professedly educated men and women, spruced, dandy (even snobbish) and often haughty, top-hatted and faultlessly dressed, feel the urge, or least the curiosity, to stare at the corpses exhibited for identification? Apparently, they’re doing it so persistently the very word “morgue” reveals it: in old French, “morguer” translates “to gaze”. Yet why?

A mid 19th century edition of the “Fraser’s Magazine” provides a fairly pertinent answer, glazed with poetic metaphors too:

“The Morgue possesses a constantly recurring and constantly varying story, involving equally new scenery, new actors and new passions; the dead play the leading parts in every drama of fear or guilt or suffering and the living are made subordinate accessories in the shifting panorama of horror with which every spectacle is wound up. The Morgue is the Omega of humanity, the grave without the coffin, the sleep without the shroud. Its interest is not the interest of this world, its scenes are not those out of which human ingenuity can weave” royal palaces, conventional art, et cetera.

Thus, the morgue is a resource of both cruel realism and the romantic mystery fashionable in the epoch, attiring, maintaining a vivid fascination Dickens himself (a foreigner, not an eccentric Parisian) experienced:

”Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there. One Christmas Day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in, to see an old grey man lying all alone on his cold bed, with a tap of water turned on over his grey hair, and running, drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn, and made him look sly. One New Year’s Morning (by the same token, the sun was shining outside, and there was a mountebank balancing a feather on his nose, within a yard of the gate), I was pulled in again to look at a flaxen-haired boy of eighteen, with a heart hanging on his breast–‘from his mother,’ was engraven on it–who had come into the net across the river, with a bullet wound in his fair forehead and his hands cut with a knife, but whence or how was a blank mystery. This time, I was forced into the same dread place, to see a large dark man whose disfigurement by water was in a frightful manner comic, and whose expression was that of a prize-fighter who had closed his eyelids under a heavy blow, but was going immediately to open them, shake his head, and ‘come up smiling.’ Oh what this large dark man cost me in that bright city!”

paris

The account he gives in the “Uncommercial traveller” I feel is a veracious completion of the previous record, pretty much elucidating the psychological enigma behind the outstanding number of people who payed a visit to the anonymous dead per year:more than 1 million by 1892. Fancy that! Someone could’ve gotten exceedingly rich if the idea of introducing a fee ever occurred to them… Unfortunately for the empty wallets, nobody exploited the opportunity.

But what’s your opinion on the subject? and Would you try a delightful promenade to similar destinations?

I believe it’d be a gripping experience to register…

Of course I’m referring to Sissi the Empress, whose 175th birthday (she would’ve been terrified by the prospect of ugliness this age implies)  we celebrate today, on Christmas Eve (Happy Holidays to you all!). Not for nothing she was called Eugénie, after the obscure patron Sainte Eugénie, commemorated on 24 December.

Between cleaning the last corner of my already ultra-sterilized flat and venturing to decorate the Christmas tree alongside a totally amateurish brother, I decided to take a moment of respite and celebrate my favorite 19th century Empress. Also, since the ‘Quote Monday” has been off for a while, why not revive it with a thematic excerpt from Sissi’s diary to compensate the shortness of the post?

BLOG

She was aware they believed her insane and actually pronounced it out loud, publicly, though I’m momentarily unable to recall the exact circumstances which lead to her uttering such audacious a line. Certainly no previous Austrian monarch ever attempted a similar bravery in facing the court. A true eccentric, this woman, and a brave one at that.

She was so interestingly dynamic I believe it’s nearly impossible not to least feel the most malnourished affinity for her and to support my conviction, here are some things I bet you didn’t know about our Sissi (and neither suspected):

  • She admired gorgeous women perhaps as much as men did, with the exception that she only, exclusively, solely accepted the company of this particular category, and even had a picture album to count her preferences (over 100 samples, which numbered beauties from Lola Montes and Maria Sophia of Bavaria to unconventional Amelie Gautreau).  To complete it, the Empress wrote the Austrian ambassadors across Europe to send her photographs of charming ladies in their vicinity, causing amusing scandals regarding the purpose of the collection.
  • She had an anchor tattoo on her shoulder to express a love for sailing never to diminish for as long as she lived. Husband Franz was reportedly displeased by the daring.
  • When catching a sea storm, she often had her attendants tie her to a fixed chair on the main deck, claiming she imitates Ulysses due to the magnetic attraction waves exerted on her… Imagine what terrible coercion subdued the ones who abode her whim but responded before the Emperor if any unfortunate incident took place.
  • To avoid fulfilling her marital duties in the detriment of much desirable traveling, Sissi encouraged Franz’s sexual affairs, especially the long-term relationship with actress Katharina Schratt, whose reputation she always protected. Rumors of their friendship enabled Kat to continue the liaison for over 30 years, as a faithful mistress and friend to the miserable Emperor.

Wasn’t hers a titillating life?

There’s a tangible truth in Proust’s quote, the sort whose veracity  each of us can test in relation with our most intimate perception of paradise and the first experience of loss, which somehow comes right down from John Milton’s famed poem but also, somehow, doesn’t. To explain it would mean the beginning of a baffling, perplexing row of philosophical reasoning I’ll refrain unleashing here although, at the same time, it needs mentioning.

Subliminally, congenially, we’re all subjected to nostalgia over a period of life (that often seems to be our enchanting and enchanted childhood), whether consciously or less, to which we associate divine proportions and images distorted positively. In this regard, our judgement is no greater than a child’s, affected by the tendency to aggrandize. Interesting to remember the above statement belongs to one who lived amongst the patented masters of megalomania, the haughty, highly dramatic Parisians, in a century itself grandiose. I don’t think it changes anything substantially, though.

Don’t you find we’re as prone to do it now, modern as we are,  this exaggeration of the past/paradise time’s elapsing made us lose?

A mocking Love Recipe

November 4, 2012

For today, just some brief comments on the art of deceitful courtship in the late Georgian England, all through sarcastic verses.

Ashamed as I am by the blatant imperfections of this most recent drawing of mine I couldn’t help submitting it here, in the end, all praying the critique will ensue mildly. With studies demanding most of my otherwise highly distributive attention and the perpetual pursuit of one of those whimsical goals (reading over 100 books until the New Year’s Eve) consuming the rest of my remaining time no wonder the above composition is rather hastily made and clearly wronged in several places. Nevertheless, I hope it brings the sense of tension which first fascinated me upon embarking the little project. Shadows are not enough emphasized and one buttock needs urgent repairing but I fancy it decently reassembles Bouguereau‘s men from ‘Dante And Virgil In Hell’. It’s a mere imitation, though; the original’s far more dramatic and infinitely more powerful in its effects on the viewer, there’s no denying that. Yet I seem to helplessly desire molding with my own fingers a character, a movement, a curve, a shade I like gazing. Whenever I recreate one I feel connected to it in a way beyond an observer’s range since, through the process, I come closer to understanding the artist’s vision regarding the work and the many subtleties of the work itself. As a secondary author, my senses indicate, I’m indirectly part of the act of creation which produces the praised masterpiece. But we’re entering tedious territory now.
What do you think about the above charcoal on paper thingy? These two cannibals are sort of alluring, don’t you believe? I remember being intrigued by them when I first saw Bouguereau’s painting at the Orsay Museum… Does it least capture a tint of the original’s appeal?

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